An engraving of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), after his earliest known portrait (1748). PR-52, Portrait File, Box 48. The New-York Historical Society.

In 1725, a then unknown nineteen-year-old journeyman printer named Benjamin Franklin printed A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, responding to William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated. Later, having second thoughts about the soundness of his argument, Franklin destroyed most of the remaining copies of what was already a small run. Fortunately, his distribution of a handful to friends enabled some copies to survive.

Despite surviving Franklin’s own purge, the original printing is still exceedingly rare. Unfortunately, the New-York Historical Society does not hold one of the surviving copies, but it does hold a handwritten facsimile with its own unique history. Though far from uncommon as a format, the facsimile’s attention to detail in achieving a faithful replication of the printed text, by hand, is impressive. More broadly, it suggests a recognition of a facsimile’s ability to capture the character of an original work not present in the text alone.

James Parton’s note explaining the origin’s of the N-YHS facsimile of Benjamin Franklin’s A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, 1861. BV Franklin, Benjamin. Dissertation. The New-York Historical Society.

Perhaps more curious is that this volume reveals the interesting context of its creation. A note preceding the text reads:

A Facsimile, executed with the pen, of the pamphlet written and printed by Benjamin Franklin, in his nineteenth year, when he was a journeyman printer in London. Done in London, in 1861, for James Parton.”

James Parton was a successful nineteenth century biographer. His subjects include Jefferson, Astor, Burr, Voltaire, and Greeley, Parton but he is probably best known for his three volume work on Andrew Jackson. This opus was widely celebrated for Parton’s meticulous research, and represents an important moment in writing biography.

Title-page of the Parton facsimile of A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. BV Franklin, Benjamin. Dissertation. The New-York Historical Society.

The story crystallizes further when we recognize that Parton completed a biography of Benjamin Franklin in 1864. Based on this, we can assume that Parton had engaged someone to copy Franklin’s essay in preparation.

Since it indicates that Parton’s “hired hand” made the facsimile in London, it’s conceivable that it emulates the copy in the British Library (then part of the British Museum). Alternatively, there are a handful of copies now held here in the United States so we might wonder why Parton couldn’t access a copy outside of engaging someone in London. But Parton was English by birth, and it’s highly probably that those copies had not yet made their ways to publicly accessible repositories by the 1860s.

Page 32 from the Parton facsimile of A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain. BV Franklin, Benjamin. Dissertation. The New-York Historical Society.

Whatever the case may be, it’s certainly interesting how much a quickly scribbled note can change our understanding of this work. It’s also worth considering how times have changed; in an age where capturing images is as simple as tapping a smart phone camera, this sheds a small light on how much more difficult obtaining copies was in the “olden days.”

Epigraph to Franklin’s Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity, Pleasure and Pain, drawn from John Dryden (1631-1700). BV Franklin, Benjamin. Dissertation. The New-York Historical Society.

This post is by Edward O’Reilly, Curator of Manuscripts.

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